Swindon Town sealed a very necessary win with a highly polished performance against second-placed Torquay at the County Ground last night, writes Daniel Hunt.
It should be no surprise because this was Town’s eleventh straight home league win and fifteenth straight home win in all competitions (if you class the penalty shootout victory against AFC Wimbledon as a win!). Paolo Di Canio’s much changed side played well and banished memories of Saturday’s stuttering defeat to Crewe Alexandra.
On a night where his assistant manager, Shaun Taylor, was inducted into the Swindon Town ‘Hall of Fame’, Martin Ling’s Torquay side did their best to make it look like an old pals act with a disappointing performance that belied their lofty position in League Two. By recent comparison, fellow promotion chasers Cheltenham and Crawley have caused Swindon far more problems – the one thing they all have in common? They’ve all left the County Ground goalless and pointless and that’s why Swindon Town will be gracing League One again next year! Excuse me for being bullish but this really is a team to be proud of.
Looking for a response from Saturday, Di Canio had the luxury of making four changes to the side. Cibocchi and Holmes replaced Kennedy and Rooney on the left, Connell started ahead of Leyton Orient loanee Tehoue up front and Jonathan Smith replaced Flint with Risser dropping back to centre-half alongside McCormack instead of Devera, who slotted in at right back. Keeping up?
Before the match, I commented that this was my preferred midfield and forward selection but that I would have played Flint ahead of Risser, mindful of the potential threat posed by the muscular frame of target-man Rene Howe. I needn’t have worried because Howe was largely ineffectual and Risser capped a sponsor’s man-of-the-match winning performance with a powerfully headed goal that ‘Oooh’ Shaun Taylor would have been proud of!
I think Torquay got it wrong by not starting with Taiwo Atieno, the striker who scored the winner when the two sides clashed at Plainmoor on Boxing Day. Atieno came off the bench in the second half but the game was already out of reach of Torquay against a mean Swindon defence.
The opening twenty minutes of the first half were probably Torquay’s brightest of the entire match but they failed to overly trouble Wes Foderingham in the Town goal. The redeeming feature of Town’s early play was the quality of the link up between attacking players. Simon Ferry was played in behind in the 10th minute, following quick passes from Benson and Ritchie, but Ferry’s near post cross was cleared for a corner.
Benson had dropped deep to receive the ball and Ferry cleverly exploited the space in behind the full back who had followed the former Charlton man. Alessandro Cibocchi was next to try his luck but he’ll have to wait for his first Swindon goal after his stinging 15th minute free kick was well held down low by Bobby Olejnik.
Two minutes later, more sumptuous build up play, this time between Connell and Holmes, set the on loan Southampton winger free on the left and Holmes’ cut-back for the onrushing Smith brought a smart block from a Torquay defender. Matt Ritchie had an excellent game, delivering the corners which led to both Town goals, and in the 25th minute he almost grabbed one for himself.
Sadly for Matt, his cross drifted agonisingly wide whilst being just out of reach of the Swindon attackers. The game swung from end to end in the moments following this; firstly Eunan O’Kane shot straight at Foderingham from twenty yards before Paul Benson flicked over the bar from a Cibocchi centre from the left hand touchline.
Alan Connell took the credit for the opening goal in the 33rd minute but I’m still unsure about how it came about. The facts are that Ritchie swung in the corner from the right, there was a bit of a melee and the ball ended up in the back of the net! I haven’t seen the goals again but I’ve heard suggestions that it was in fact an own goal. Following recent events, I don’t think any one begrudged Connell his eleventh goal of the season.
Simon Ferry can take a lot of credit for preserving Swindon’s lead two minutes before the break, sliding in to intercept a pass which would have put a Torquay striker through on goal. The resulting corner was headed over by Torquay centre-back Mark Ellis. Ellis is someone that has always impressed me when I’ve seen him play, very powerful in the air as he displayed on more than one occasion in this game.
Half time came and went with no changes for either team. Town started the better of the two sides and Connell could have done better than to poke wide from Ritchie’s teasing cross from the right after 50 minutes. Foderingham’s most difficult save of the night followed shortly after, with the diminutive Danny Stevens supplying O’Kane and his snap shot from a tight angle was palmed out for a corner by the ex-Crystal Palace keeper.
Connell would go close again in the 57th minute, this time going with his head from a Lee Holmes cross from the left. Connell’s header was deflected wide though and after Ritchie swung in the corner, the pressure finally told with Risser notching his third goal of the season with a bullet header. Properly rousing stuff from the Namibian, the County Ground was rocking!
The second goal effectively settled the contest and the next 15-20 minutes were a subdued affair. The introduction of Atieno gave the Seagulls more presence up front but Town defended stoutly and as the game wore on, Swindon could have added a third goal. Ritchie seized on a Torquay mistake to surge forward in the 72nd minute, Holmes was better placed to receive the ball in the left hand channel but Ritchie went alone (to Holmes’ visual frustration!) and Olejnik parried Ritchie’s shot over the cross-bar.
Town saw out the game very professionally and three substitutions in the last fifteen minutes took the sting out of Torquay efforts to get back into the game; Flint, Tehoue and then Rooney all highlighting the strength in depth at Paolo Di Canio’s disposal. Callum Kennedy, Billy Bodin and Rafa De Vita couldn’t even get into the match day sixteen…
Post match celebrations
Make no mistake, this game could have gone very differently given the shaky performance at Gresty Road and Torquay’s great recent run of form. That Torquay looked an average side on the night, is testament to how well Swindon did. There are now seven points separating Town and Martin Ling’s men in second place, a considerable gap half way through a season, let alone with nine league games to go.
It also sends players, management and fans to Wembley on a high. Chesterfield await and the two sides are one place apart in the football league pyramid. Town should be boosted by the signing of another loanee in the form of Barnsley left-back Jay McEveley as Paolo continues to put his stamp on a squad capable of challenging in the league above.
In what has become a post-match ritual, Di Canio waited by the tunnel to hug every single Swindon player as they came off the pitch and nearly three-quarters of the Town fans hung around to witness Di Canio’s scarf waving thank you to the supporters! Enter Shaun Hodgetts who grabbed goal scorer Alan Connell for a post-match chat, meaning five thousand reds had to wait a minute longer to roar their appreciation! Waiting doesn’t phase Swindon fans though; we’ve only been waiting 43 years to win another cup trophy after all! Onwards to Wembley…
Follow Daniel Hunt on Twitter – @dphunt88